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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Four Books

Yan Lianke

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Four Books

Title: The Four Books
Author: Yan Lianke
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 338 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: The Four Books - US
The Four Books - UK
The Four Books - Canada
The Four Books - India
Les quatre livres - France
Los cuatro libros - España
  • Chinese title: 四书
  • Translated by Carlos Rojas

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Our Assessment:

B : creative and effective approach, but a bit lumbering

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 20/3/2015 David Evans
The Guardian . 4/4/2015 Xiaolu Guo
The Independent . 6/4/2015 Jonathan Gibbs
The NY Rev. of Books . 22/6/2017 Ian Johnson
The Observer . 29/3/2015 Isabel Hilton

  From the Reviews:
  • "As in his previous work, Yan is interested in how morality collapses in extreme circumstances. (...) Yanís prose, ably translated by Carlos Rojas, alternates between blank descriptions of the horror (...) and extravagant symbolism: crucifixes, infernos, wheat sheaves mysteriously swollen with blood. Itís not exactly subtle but these Grand Guignol flourishes seem grimly appropriate." - David Evans, Financial Times

  • "Reading The Four Books isnít an easy undertaking, but it is richly rewarding. The English translation comes across as quite precise and poetic to me, a native Chinese speaker. (...) As a reader, you close the book with a profound sense of how ideology has permeated and changed every sector of collective human life, from trivial daily matters to the great ruptures of history." - Xiaolu Guo, The Guardian

  • "Many historical elements of the Great Leap Forward are lampooned, but the laughter is bitter indeed. (...) Stark, powerful and compelling, this book is not "a joy to read", but reading it is certainly a privilege." - Jonathan Gibbs, The Independent

  • "Clearly Yan is trying to recreate an atmosphere rather than give an accurate accounting. This is legitimate, and yet I felt that Yanís style also reflects modern Chinese fictionís love of absurd exaggeration (not to mention love of excrement and bodily fluids). It is almost as if the author does not trust the factual record or basic human reactions to horror, and instead feels obliged to imagine scenes that go beyond the grotesque. (...) Still, The Four Books is impressive and important. It is the first major work by a famous author on the famine, part of a trend that has gained momentum over the past decade." - Ian Johnson, The New York Review of Books

  • "Woven together, these "texts" reflect the catastrophe of the times and meditate on the meaning of integrity, truth, love and ethics when confronted with horror." - Isabel Hilton, The Observer

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Four Books is a novel of China's 'Great Leap Forward' under Mao, more than half a century ago. It is set in a remote part of China, where what used to be labor reform colony for political criminals has been recast as a "Re-Ed region" -- a 're-education' camp -- now housing some twenty-thousand 'criminals', some ninety per cent of whom are intellectuals. The Four Books focuses on one group -- the 'ninety-ninth', with 127 'criminals'.
       The ninety-ninth is ruled over by 'the Child' -- a youngster of indeterminate age, but who only begins growing facial hair rather late in the story. None of the prisoners are identified by name; instead they are referred to more generically as Author, Scholar, Musician, Theologian. The Child has a system of rewards -- red blossoms and pentagonal stars -- for those who do well at assigned tasks or show the proper revolutionary attitude -- promising freedom to any who accumulate enough. (Escape itself is nearly impossible: the area is remote and near-impossible to leave -- and even if somehow one makes it home, family members might well report the escapee to the authorities.) Dangling such promises of possible freedom, the Child gets the Author to chronicle events at the Re-Ed, snitching on his fellow prisoners; this is the Criminal Records, one of the four books of the title.
       The Author was a successful author and the director of the national Writers' Association. His books were even known and translated abroad -- all reasons why he was elected by his colleagues to go to Re-Ed when he unwisely suggested a vote on who they should send, as the one they thought most likely to be able to make the best of the situation, given his fame and reputation. Ink and paper are a great temptation for the Author, and aside from the Criminal Records he dutifully keeps and passes on to the Child he realizes:

I wanted to write a true book. I didn't know what that book would be, but I was determined to write it nevertheless.
       This is Old Course, a parallel and unofficial chronicle of the ninety-ninth not meant for the eyes of the Child and the higher-ups. A third book is Heaven's Child, yet another take on the situation, but far more abstract -- the story as myth, heavily infused (as much of the novel is) with Biblical allusions and imagery, the Child -- God-like in his power -- early on issuing the ten commandments of Re-Ed, while ultimately following (horrifically) in the footsteps of another Biblical figure in self-sacrifice. The final book -- appearing in the final chapter -- is a philosophical manuscript "which the Scholar worked on for many years but never finished", The New Myth of Sisyphus, which recasts the story (and the issues) in different mythological terms.
       In shifting between the first three texts (and eventually the fourth), The Four Books chronicles the absurdities of the ideologically-driven Great Leap Forward. The prisoners struggle to survive, but readily do the Child's bidding (including informing on one another) in the hopes of small rewards or the promise of eventual freedom. The naïve Child also wants to please -- answering to the 'higher-ups', the ones truly holding power. (Though the occasional higher-ups also wind up as prisoners -- including two found hanging from the rafters, whose suicide note notes: "A person's death is like a light being extinguished, after which it is no longer necessary to worry about trying to re-educate and reform them".)
       The Child has grandiose ambitions for how much grain the ninety-ninth can produce, and then gets caught up in an even more ambitious endeavor, finding a way to make steel from deposits in the local sand. The Author, at one point in semi-exile at the ninety-ninth, looks after his own plot of land and fertilizes his crops with his own blood -- succeeding grotesquely.
       Condition are largely bearable, until the Great Famine comes, here complete with forty-day flood. With practically nothing edible to be found, desperation and deaths mount; some even resort to cannibalism.
       Yan's portrayal of the ninety-ninth is grounded in the realistic but takes considerable liberties, veering into the near-absurd (as well as near-mythical). This works quite well, though much is left underdeveloped. Books figure prominently in the story, from the Bible to those the Child collects early on (as the intellectuals have lugged along whole trunks-full), including that: "particularly lewd and reactionary" novel, The Story of the Stone -- burning many, and saving some only, he claims, to burn in the winter to keep himself warm. (As it turns out, in one of Yan's more optimistic turns, books prove more enduring after all.)
       Unsurprisingly, 'Re-Ed' doesn't live up to its name; survival is pretty much all the prisoners care about, followed by the hope of eventually returning home -- and, of course, the efforts at re-education aren't really pedagogically sound. The only character who evolves is the Child -- young enough that for him Re-Ed is his actual education, complicated by the fact that he is in a position of authority a leader/teacher, rather than (officially) student/prisoner. Books play a central role in how he reshapes himself -- including, rather creepily, the Bible -- but even his (re-)education is one of destructive futility.
       The back and forth among the different texts that make up The Four Books doesn't make for a choppy narrative; indeed, it hardly feels fragmentary at all, as Yan progresses fairly straightforwardly. Heaven's Child differs greatly in tone and approach, yet fits fine in the overall picture. In fact, Yan perhaps doesn't shake things up quite enough, with Criminal Records and Old Course too closely aligned; a more radical approach to one or both would have added a helpful additional dimension. As is, the story lumbers a long a bit: even as the overlap of stories in the different texts moves along fairly smoothly the story doesn't really flow.
       With a creative structure, strong episodes, and some inspired inventions (and re-invention of myths, ranging from the ancient Greek to the Biblical to the Chinese), culminating in a powerful conclusion, The Four Books impresses more in the abstract. Still, it's in many ways an impressive attempt at trying to convey this strange and horrible episode in Chinese history.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 April 2015

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The Four Books: Reviews: Yan Lianke: Other books by Yan Lianke under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chinese author Yan Lianke (閻連科) was born in 1958, and he has won several major Chinese literary prizes.

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© 2015-2021 the complete review

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